Then it clicked: Protective gear could use more glamour.
Now, seven tailors have moved into her mansion in the commercial capital, Lagos, as a business in Africa’s largest economy crawls to a halt. They’re wearing custom hazmat suits and sewing glittery, rhinestone-studded face masks for sale and donation.
With a giant asterisk, of course: Even medical-grade coverage isn’t guaranteed to stop the novel coronavirus. But while the effectiveness of homemade masks is unproven, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they’re better than none in last-resort situations, which is why tailors around the world are stitching substitutes in the face of a global shortage. The American company that makes Major League Baseball uniforms, for instance, is cutting pinstriped masks from jersey material.
Lawani’s pieces, made to match ball gowns and bikinis, are meant to raise awareness, she said.
Lagos has more than twice the population of New York City and a robust fashion scene, where designers have long harnessed style as a tool for communication.
The city’s runways have promoted recycling, gender equality, and traditional African artistry — themes meant to nourish the greater good, said Omoyemi Akerele, founder of Lagos Fashion Week. Some fashion houses are consulting doctors, she said, and sourcing fabric for mask production. (The community has also donated soap to garment workers.)
“Fashion is a voice for change,” she said. “It can save lives.”
Many in Nigeria — and the United States — haven’t grasped the severity of the coronavirus threat. Warnings from celebrities can help. (The U.S. surgeon general urged Kylie Jenner, for instance, to inform her 167 million Instagram followers about the importance of social distancing.)
“Initially I thought: ‘Guys, come on, these masks won’t do anything,’ ” Akerele said of the blinged-out variety. “Then I realized it was a statement: Be responsible. You have to do the right thing.”
Lawani’s designs took off with a question from a bygone era: What do we wear to the party?
The party — the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards — commands Oscars-level star power and millions of viewers from 50 countries in normal times. This year’s parade of Nollywood stars and reality TV contestants kicked off about two weeks ago.
Nigeria had confirmed only two cases at the time. (Saturday’s count: more than 80.) The pandemic hadn’t reached the Lagos fete, and Lawani needed to whip up looks for her elite customers.
“I said, ‘Make me an outfit that will pass a message to Nigerians,’ and she was like, ‘Say no more,’ ” said Omashola Kola Oburoh, a Big Brother Naija finalist with 756,000 Instagram followers.
He sported a shimmery pinkish silver suit with three-dimensional fabric skulls on the chest and a matching face mask. The choice went viral.
Ifu Ennada, a beauty influencer with 1.3 million Instagram followers, adorned her mouth with lace and jewels. Hundreds of messages flooded her inbox: Where did she get that mask?
“Everything I do is always out there in the public,” Ennada said. “I’m trying to educate people. To inspire them to stay cautious and stay safe.”
Face masks have become controversial in this time of the pandemic. Stockpiling them depletes the supply for health-care workers, medical professionals warn. Yet all types have flown off the shelves in Nigeria and practically everywhere else.
The humble equipment is making headlines. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma just sent 5.4 million surgical masks to Ethiopia, a care package to be distributed continentwide. High-end retailers, such as Prada, have shifted focus from summer streetwear to masks.
Folu Storms, a radio host, and actress in Lagos sparked buzz with her rhinestone-embellished mask — an Afrofuturist look, she said, in the coronavirus context — on the red carpet before deciding to self-isolate in her apartment.
She’s calling on others to do the same in her popular podcasts.
“We all need to stay home,” Storms said.
Schools, churches, and offices in Lagos are now shuttered. International flights are suspended. Chinese fabric merchants aren’t landing with new loads of silk and cotton. Nigerian factories aren’t churning out the goods, either.
Lawani, the celebrity stylist, is relying on her personal stash.
Her team has received hundreds of orders. Prices vary. They’ve sent 1,000 free masks to charities.
“Didn’t sleep all night,” she posted Wednesday on Instagram. “Still working on the production with my tailors/managers who put their lives on the line to help the public.”
The tailors follow strict hand-washing schedules. Regular dance breaks lift moods.
“I’m very happy,” said one, 33-year-old Shamsudeen Abdullahi Olabode, in a WhatsApp voice message. “Very comfortable.”
But it’s unclear how long work can last. The glitter is fleeting.
“We can’t go to the market,” the tailor said. “We can’t get the material we need right now.”